On July 13, a couple of news stories that detailed two tragic events in Lincoln made their rounds on various news outlets. In separate, yet, unrelated instances over the span of a day, two human lives were lost at the hands of two different men a mere five blocks apart from each other.
A couple of days later, I was shooting the breeze with an Uber driver over my lunch hour when small talk turned to mentions of the headlines. My driver said to me jestingly, “You live in that neighborhood, huh? The one with those murders the other day? I wouldn’t want to live down there. You got sons killing their fathers, and people killing each other in the streets. That’s just a bad neighborhood.”
It was the kind of day not seen in Lincoln since 1976, and he had likely seen the headlines or heard the news clips. Perhaps, he’d caught wind of the happenings from a friend of a friend who maybe knew someone who lives in the neighborhood. Who could blame the guy for entering that conversation with that perception when the events that took place were absolutely horrific tragedies?
Yet, the immediacy of those simple, non-malicious statements felt like a deeply rooted personal attack.
In an attempt to unravel my discomfort, I pinpointed it back to a defensiveness at the immediacy of his judgments. You see, the driver had never shared a meal, or even a conversation, with the young men charged in those two deaths.
He had never shared a laugh with either of them, nor called them “neighbor.” Moreover, he had never exchanged a warm smile or a genuine greeting with either of the young men.
Those men are not merely the worst things they’ve ever done. I know this because I am privileged enough to know them both. I’ve shared many meals in my home with one of the young men. I’ve had warm conversation with the other outside his home and seen him often spending time with and caring for his little brother.
I have called both of these young men neighbor. And friend.
My faith instructs me, and many of you, to love our neighbor. If we follow these instructions, it’s impossible to reduce those men to just headlines or soundbites. “… God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (Genesis 1:26).
If we subscribe to this belief system and have faith that there is an inherent value and goodness set inside of us by the Creator, we cannot judge so fiercely, and so unempathetically. We are defined by this image and likeness, just as we are defined by the love Christ has for us. We, as humans, are also defined by His capacity to bestow mercy.
I’m not advocating against consequences for our infractions in this world. What I am asking for, however, is that we remind ourselves that they are human, just as we are.
What I am requesting is a willingness to allow others the opportunity for redemption. What I do wish for is a system that allows for redemption and retribution. Restoration and not just punishment. Let us pray that we see no heart as irredeemable. Instead, let us imitate Jesus. Let us know the people around us as our neighbors and let us view them as ... beloved.
Brody M. Van Roekel is executive director of Atlas: Lincoln, an organization that helps people in Lincoln through Christian peer-support and mentorship.